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Three bombs rock capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state

The three blasts at separate locations around Sittwe included one at the home of a high-ranking official © AFP

Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 24 – Three bombs exploded early Saturday in the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, a cauldron of ethnic tensions roiled by insurgencies and a military crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya, injuring one police officer, officials said.

The three blasts at separate locations around Sittwe included one at the home of a high-ranking official, police told AFP.

Besides the bloody campaign against the Rohingya in the state’s north, Rakhine has been struggling with a decade-long rebellion fought by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist insurgents, though bombings in the state capital are rare.

“Three bombs exploded and three other unexploded bombs were found. A police officer was injured but not seriously,” a senior officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The blasts hit at around 4:00 am (2130 GMT Friday), the officer said.

One was detonated in the compound of the state government secretary’s home, while the two others exploded in front of an office in the city and on a road leading to a beach.

A local official from the state government confirmed the explosions. Photos of the sites showed shattered windows and scattered debris.

Photos of the sites showed shattered windows and scattered debris © AFP

“Some streets are being blocked by police already because of the bomb blasts,” Zaw Zaw, a resident of Sittwe, told AFP by phone.

In recent months, unrest in Rakhine has been concentrated in the state’s northern wedge, where a sweeping military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim community last August pushed nearly 700,000 refugees across the border to Bangladesh.

International attention has focused on that conflict, with the UN leading global condemnation of what it says amounts to a military-led ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.

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Yet restive Rakhine also hosts a lesser-known insurgency waged by a Rakhine Buddhist rebel group called the Arakan Army, which periodically clashes with Myanmar troops.

Unlike the Rohingya Muslims who are denied citizenship, the Rakhine are recognised by the government as an ethnic minority but are still marginalised in a country historically dominated by the Bamar (Burmese) majority.

Tensions between the community and local authorities shot through the roof after a police crackdown on an ethnic Rakhine mob left seven dead last month.

That violence in Mrauk U township prompted the Arakan Army’s political wing to warn of a “serious” retaliation for the deaths of the protesters.

Around two weeks later the town’s administrator was found murdered on the side of the road.

– Ethnic Rakhine tensions –

David Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Myanmar, said the Sittwe blasts were more likely tied to ethnic Rakhine tensions than the Rohingya crisis, whose epicentre is further north.

The Arakan Army is “the only armed group operating in central Rakhine that would have the sophistication to do something like this”, he told AFP.

Coordinated strikes in an urban area would however mark a “significant escalation” of that rebellion, which typically sees clashes outside the capital.

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He said it was unlikely that the bombs were linked to the Rohingya — who also have a militant wing — as very few Muslims have mobility in the capital.

The coastal city of Sittwe was once home to a sizeable Rohingya population but most were forced to abandon their homes by deadly communal violence with ethnic Rakhines in 2012.

Today a small community of Rohingya are confined to a Muslim enclave in the city while more than 100,000 others are still trapped in squalid displacement camps outside the capital.

Further north, the vast majority of Myanmar’s 1.1-million Rohingya population has now fled across the border to Bangladesh in a mass exodus that began six months ago.

Refugees say they ran from a ruthless army assault that saw troops team up with ethnic Rakhine mobs to torch homes, murder civilians and commit mass rape.

Myanmar authorities deny committing any atrocities and say they were targeting Rohingya rebels who raided police posts in August, killing at least a dozen officers.

The government has blocked UN staff from investigating the conflict zone in northern Rakhine, where thousands of Rohingya are believed to have been killed.

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